Dr. Donald Liebenberg loves the dark, or at least, the short moments every so often when the moon and the sun align.
Liebenberg studies solar eclipses and may have spent more time in periods of totality than anyone else in the world. The Clemson University adjunct professor and physicist has witnessed 26 of the phenomena from lines of totality.
In 2017, for the first time in his 60-plus years of studying solar activity, he’ll watch an eclipse from his own driveway.
Liebenberg began studying eclipses in the early 1950s with support from the University of Wisconsin, his alma mater.
On a clear day in June 1954, he witnessed a minute and 10 second solar eclipse over Mellen, Wisconsin. In the time since, he’s seen eclipses on every continent, a handful of which were witnessed by plane or boar.
A total solar eclipse will happen over South Carolina on Aug., 21. The eclipse will follow a coast-to-coast path across the United States for the first time in nearly a century. For two minutes 10 seconds at about 2:30 p.m., the Upstate will be in totality. That means, barring cloudy skies, the area is expected to be one of the best places in the country to see the 360-degree sunset in the middle of the day.
For many observers, it will be a chance to witness a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.
For a total eclipse to occur, Liebenberg explained “you need the moon to be in front of the sun and it needs to be close enough to the earth, so that the shadow, not the partial shadow, so the penumbra not the umbra, falls on the surface of the earth.”
A total eclipse is visible from somewhere on earth an average of about twice every three years, according to Liebenberg, but the paths are ever-changing, making it rare to see one in the same place.
“The moon’s orbit is tilted relative to the orbit of the earth around the sun. This intersection of where the moon is on its orbit and where the earth is on its orbit provides a difference in the shadow – and the earth is rotating so you’ll get the shadow appearing – even if it were at the same latitude, it might not be at the same longitude.”
For those in the path of totality, a total solar eclipse means moments of near-total darkness in the middle of the afternoon.
“It really is an impression that you will never forget,” one Liebenberg said led him into a lifelong career of studying the phenomena.
“They are an indescribable sensation, because the sky has gotten dark, not completely dark, there’s lots of scattered light coming in outside of the eclipse path, but nonetheless, it gets dark. Birds do go to nest. Animals do lie down in the field. It is an eerie feeling.”
Eclipses, over the course of recorded history, have been eerie enough to affect ongoing wars. “There’s at least one mention in Ancient Greek history of when an eclipse either stopped a battle or disrupted a battle.”
Liebenberg also relayed a story from 1780, during the Revolutionary War, when the Continental Congress and British government set aside differences to make it possible for an American scientist to travel to the site of an eclipse despite it being in British controlled territory.
Through his work, Liebenberg carries on the tradition of science he proudly notes has been supported by the American government since its earliest days.
In 1968, he petitioned to send American scientists into rarely accessed land in Russia to study an eclipse over the Ural Mountains. That request was granted.
Like scientists who’ve come before him and those who will follow, Liebenberg holds a particular interest in the unanswered questions of the corona, a ring of sunlight around the outside of the moon as it passes between the Earth and Sun.
Since earning three degrees, including a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin, he’s built a career around studying the ring of light for the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. National Science Foundation, the Office of Naval Research, Los Alamos National Laboratory, University of Wisconsin, Clemson University and more.
He’s spent decades working to answer one question — how does energy input strong enough to heat the corona to a million degrees occur?
“It’s still, after all these years — 50, 60, 70 years — that the high temperature of the corona has been pretty well established — but the energy input is still not clear.”
His research is the epitome of life’s work. The eclipse in 1954, shortly after college, led him to write a proposal which earned a check from the newly-created National Science Foundation — seed money to open an account to support the study of eclipses through his alma mater.
In July, 1972, he spent his 40th birthday watching a 3 minute and 44 second eclipse over the northwest territories in Canada.
In June 1973, he and a group of fellow scientists watched a 74 minute eclipse from above while flying in a since-retired 001 Concorde turbojet.
“Of course that’s an incredible sensation, because I could spend more time looking at the eclipse and the skies were much darker because we were up above much of the atmosphere that scatters light from outside the shadow.”
He’s even turned the study of eclipses into a family affair, bringing his wife Norma and children along whenever possible.
In Lewiston, Montana, in 1979, it was Liebenberg’s son Karl who took a photo of an eclipse that would later be printed in Dutch Journal.
Liebenberg smiles as he tells the story of the Journal asking for a photo.
“I told them I didn’t have any, but my son took a great photo," he said.
Still, he insists his son’s love of eclipses isn’t as strong as his own.
In 2001, he cleverly extended the life of an eclipse in Zambia, by positioning himself behind a nearby tree.
“At a place like Zambia, there happened to be a tree out in the open field. After totality was ending, I positioned myself to have the sun obscured by a branch of the tree and you could actually see the corona after totality had formally ended.”
Now in his 80s, the physicist has contributed to books, won awards and logged more than 20 years working in research at Clemson University, sharing what he’s learned and cultivating new passion in scientists of the future. This summer, he’ll give talks about the eclipse for various groups.
On Aug. 21, he’ll set up equipment in the driveway of his home in the Oconee County community of Keowee Key. He’s decided he’s willing to take a chance on visibility, despite concerns of cloud cover. Liebenberg has once again invited family to visit and watch alongside him.
Though most observers of the 2017 eclipse won’t be as invested in the science behind it, he knows there’s more to the experience than that.
“I think you should just go and look at the eclipse and be amazed and let your own feelings overtake you, because it is a spectacular event.”
After all, it was a simple interest in the stunning natural phenomena that started his career.
“You can look, if you want, to see the shadow coming from the Northwest and you can look and maybe see it leaving toward the Southeast, but all of that pales to the comparison of just sitting back and letting it overtake you and enjoy it.”